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March 8, 2004
College for the Home-Schooled Is Shaping Leaders for the Right
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
URCELLVILLE, Va. As one of 12 siblings taught at home by their parents in St. Croix Falls, Wis., Abram Olmstead knew he would fit right in at Patrick Henry College, the first college primarily for evangelical Christian home-schoolers. But what really sold him was the school's pipeline into conservative politics.
Of the nearly 100 interns working in the White House this semester, 7 are from the roughly 240 students enrolled in the four-year-old Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville. An eighth intern works for the president's re-election campaign. A former Patrick Henry intern now works on the paid staff of the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove. Over the last four years, 22 conservative members of Congress have employed one or more Patrick Henry interns in their offices or on their campaigns, according to the school's records.
"I would definitely like to be active in the government of our country and stuff," Mr. Olmstead, 19, said as he sat in a Christian coffeehouse near the campus, looking up from a copy of Plato's "Republic." "I would love to be able to be a foreign ambassador, and I would really like to move into the Senate later in my career."
The college's knack for political job placement testifies to the increasing influence that Christian home-schooling families are building within the conservative movement. Only about half a million families around the country home-school their children and only about two-thirds identify themselves as evangelical Christians, home-schooling advocates say. But they have passionate political views, a close-knit grass-roots network and the financial support of a handful of wealthy patrons. For all those reasons, home-schoolers have captured the attention of a wide swath of conservative politicians, many of whom are eager to hire Patrick Henry students.
When President Bush signed legislation last fall banning the procedure it calls partial-birth abortion, Michael Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association and the president of Patrick Henry, was one of just five prominent Christian conservatives invited to the Oval Office for the occasion.
Patrick Henry College is the centerpiece of an effort to extend the home-schooling movement's influence beyond education to a broad range of conservative Christian issues like opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and obscenity in the media. The legal defense association, located on the Patrick Henry campus, established the college as a forward base camp in the culture war, with the stated goal of training home-schooled Christian men and women "who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values."
"We are not home-schooling our kids just so they can read," Mr. Farris said. "The most common thing I hear is parents telling me they want their kids to be on the Supreme Court. And if we put enough kids in the farm system, some may get to the major leagues."
That is an alarming prospect to some on the left.
"Mike Farris is trying to train young people to get on a very right-wing political agenda," said Nancy Keenan, the education policy director at People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, and a former Montana state superintendent of public education. The number of Patrick Henry interns in the White House "scares me to death," she said. "It tells us a little bit more about the White House than it does about the kids."
Mingling in the corridors of the White House and Congress is also a long way from the sense of retreat at the heart of the Christian home-schooling movement. It began in the early 1980's as a few thousand evangelical Christians began teaching their children at home in disgust at what they considered the increasingly secular, relativistic and irreligious culture ascendant around them exemplified by the ban on prayer, the teaching of evolution and the promotion of contraception in the public schools.
The Home School Legal Defense Association, which now counts 81,000 families each paying about $100 a year in dues, was founded in 1983 by Mr. Farris, a lawyer who had been a protégé of Tim LaHaye, the conservative Christian political organizer and best-selling author. Mr. Farris and his wife home-schooled their own 10 children. Like Mr. LaHaye, Mr. Farris is a novelist. He has written three legal thrillers involving conservative Christian issues. His latest, "Forbid Them Not," begins with a Democratic landslide in the 2004 elections that leads to a nightmare of laws blocking parents from spanking their children, teaching their children fundamental Christianity or schooling them at home.
Membership in the home-school association grew by more than 50 percent a year for most of its first decade, association officials said. From the outset, the association fought state regulations requiring home-schooling parents to have college or high school diplomas, to pass certification tests, or to submit to visits by professional educators or social workers. It won a long series of legislative and court victories culminating in a 1993 decision by the Michigan Supreme Court, which eliminated the final major obstacle to home schooling in any of the 50 states.
By 1994, Mr. Farris was ready to flex the association's muscles. When Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, introduced a bill requiring teachers to have certain credentials, Mr. Farris warned the association's members that home-schooling parents might face the same tests (something Mr. Miller denied). Thousands of angry home-school parents and their allies deluged Congress with so many faxes and telephone calls that it temporarily shut down the Capitol Hill telephone system.
The House ultimately voted overwhelmingly to delete the provision. "They made a big impact on people's minds that fateful day," said former Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, a longtime champion of home schooling who proposed the deletion. "They got a taste of the game and found out they could be a major player."
By 1997, however, most of the association's state battles had been won and its membership growth had slowed to about 12 percent a year. Mr. Farris began looking for a new frontier. "I try to figure out how we can fix systems, so I started focusing on a bigger system," he said in an interview in February.
His answer was a college just for home-schoolers.
"Parents would ask me, `Is there a school that has the Christian character I am looking for?' " Mr. Farris said. "And congressmen would ask, `Mike, do you have a sharp home-schooler who can come and work for me?' "
One of the first and most significant contributors to sign on was Dr. James Leininger, a Texas physician, home-schooling parent and part-owner of the San Antonio Spurs. Dr. Leininger had made a fortune as controlling shareholder of the medical-bed manufacturer Kinetic Concepts Inc. He also owned a conservative political consulting and direct-mail business, and he had already become one of the biggest political contributors in Texas. He became known for backing Christian conservative candidates to the state's influential school board. And, as a board member of Children First America, he was also a major patron of the push for school tuition vouchers.
At a 1999 dinner in honor of George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, held by one of Dr. Leininger's several foundations, Mr. Bush called his host "a good man and a great Texan," The Dallas Morning News reported.
Dr. Leininger did not respond to calls for comment.
"Jim has been a very good and very faithful friend to the college," said Jack W. Haye, chairman of its board and a Texas executive of the Wells Fargo Bank. Other trustees include Janet Ashcroft, wife of Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The board helped establish a 106-acre campus with six red brick buildings on rolling green hills.
Thanks to the generosity of its donors, Patrick Henry operates with no debt, eschews federal financial support and charges about $15,000 per student a year for tuition, about $10,000 less than some comparable small colleges. The average SAT score is about 1320, roughly comparable to Notre Dame or the University of Virginia.
About two-thirds of the students major in government. It is one of the few schools that offer a special program in intelligence and foreign affairs.
Now Mr. Farris is trying to enlist even younger students in Christian conservative politics. He estimates that there are more than two million home-schooling children in the country, or more than the number of children attending New Jersey public schools, and in February he sent a letter encouraging home-schooling families to enroll their children in Generation Joshua, a new hands-on civics program for home-schooled teenagers. Participants will learn about government by helping conservative churches get voters to the polls and by volunteering for the campaigns of like-minded conservative politicians, he said.
"Home-school teens could become one of the most powerful forces in American politics, rivaling the labor unions in effectiveness," Mr. Farris wrote, adding, "The best way to train the leaders of tomorrow is to have our young people help to elect the leaders of today."
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